What Cowboy Bebop Tells Us About the Meaning of Life

With a live-action television adaptation coming to Netflix soon, the popular anime franchise Cowboy Bebop is poised to become more prominent than ever. While the series has long since concluded, and its last release being the anime film Cowboy Bebop: The Movie in 2001, it's exciting that new audiences will be introduced to Spike Spiegel and the Bebop crew.

The space-western certainly brings the action as its core cast travels the cosmos to collect bounties and other daring assignments to make ends meet. However, Cowboy Bebop also weaves in philosophical messages broaching existentialism, identity and confronting tragedy and mortality head-on throughout its 26 episodes and film.

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A lot of the appeal for the series protagonist Spike Spiegel comes from just how damn cool he is, whether he's confronting opponents with a wry smile on his face, his light on his feet gait or the crooked cigarette hanging between his lips. Spike is a fantastic martial artist and marksman, but many episodes have him badly injured by the skirmishes he's drawn into, and there are certainly opponents that outmatch him.

There's also an element of relatability: he can barely pay the bills or is seen nursing a hangover in some episodes. Spike is a devil may care everyman, but he hews less closely to a jazz-obsessed cosmic gunslinger, as the show's premise would have you believe. Instead, he leans closer to the feudal Japan archetype of a wandering ronin, and there's a lot to be learned from that outlook.

A ronin is a samurai without a master, wandering the countryside and taking jobs to survive while upholding the samurai code of honor -- the Bushido. Spike is a bounty hunter that competes with some of the sleaziest figures in the world to get lucrative contracts, but he still has a clear code of honor that even associates like Faye Valentine struggle with at times. A lot of this comes from Spike being influenced by the martial arts superstar Bruce Lee.

Spike directly references Lee's teachings and philosophies, even moving like him at times in fight sequences. Lee coined his fighting style and philosophies as the Tao of Jeet Kune Do -- translated from Cantonese as the Way of the Intercepting Fist -- which promoted fluidity and spontaneity in the moment rather than being confined to restrictive, traditional styles and patterns as an extension of Taoism.

This connection extends beyond fighting style and into Spike's outlook and is especially evident whenever he confronted his own potential demise. In Episode 19, Spike faces the possibility of dying upon planetary reentry and simply lights a cigarette and smiles as he exhales, saying, "Whatever happens, happens." Spike repeatedly faces figures he knows could easily kill him, but he's not concerned about his mortality so much as he is about seeing a job through to completion.

This dedication carries right on to the series finale, where Spike assaults a crime syndicate headed by his old enemy Vicious, knowing he's likely heading off to his death. Even with Faye trying to talk him down, he heads out anyway because, with his love Julia dead, Spike has no other serious attachments that would dissuade him from this final showdown.

Other significant characters have their own brushes with existentialism too. We learn more about Spike's Bebop crew mates Faye, Jet Black and Edward throughout the series, with Jet having to reconcile with his hardboiled past and Faye with her tragic origins as someone hardened by abandonment and betrayal. Even the anime movie's main antagonist Vincent gets a moment to reflect, pondering if he's a man dreaming of butterflies or butterflies dreaming about being a man.

On a surface level, Cowboy Bebop is a space western with noir flourishes and jazz sensibilities pulsating throughout its backwater towns and neon cities. Yet creator Hajime Yatate and Sunrise Animation's collective production staff has crafted something more profound than a simple, straightforward tale. One that weaves in Taoist musings on existentialism and identity as Spike and his friends wander the cosmos for their next gig. Hopefully, with the first season of the live-action Cowboy Bebop having wrapped filming, these sensibilities will surface in the adaptation.

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